Of Stars and Stripes
(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on Dec. 13, 1995)
Think of it as one of those slices of life stored somewhere in the back of the mind, one of those memories that come rushing back when they become relevant many years later. You find yourself retrieving information much faster than the most powerful computers.
The U.S. Senate rejects a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration, and my mind flashes back to the day my mother taught me how to draw an American flag.
It was some 35 years ago, back in communist Cuba, and this was a daring feat. After all, we were drawing the flag of “Yankee imperialism,” the symbol of the country my teachers had described as the enemy. Once I knew how to draw the U.S. flag, at the age of 10, I was sworn to secrecy, promising never to do it in front of my friends.
I was warned that other kids would tell their parents and we could get in such trouble that we would be unable to leave Cuba and rejoin my older brother, who was already in Florida. I had requested the flag-drawing lesson, since we were already planning to immigrate here, but then I felt like I was taking an oath to renounce the U.S. flag publicly, even if in secret I could color its stripes with crayons.
In a Manhattan courtroom some 20 years later, as I proudly and publicly raised my right hand to take the oath to become a U.S. citizen and swear allegiance to the flag, my mind kept wandering back to my mother's drawing lesson, which not only taught me to appreciate the American flag's beauty, but the freedom it represents.
Now that Congress has been debating the constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration, my mind keeps flashing back to my mother's dilemma after we drew my first American flag. You see, she had taught me that flags could not be destroyed, that once they are created, they are sacred. Now that we had made an American flag, we had to keep it — and hide it.
Long before she taught me how to draw the American flag, my mother had taught me how to recite a poem in Spanish about my own Cuban flag. It's called “Mi Bandera” (My Flag), and roughly translated it says that even if the flag is torn to pieces, and there is no one left to defend it, our dead will find a way to do it by raising their arms from their graves.
The image this poem painted in my mind is a very clear contrast to that of a flag burning — because of the Supreme Court's illogical ruling in 1989 and 1990 that the symbol of freedom can be desecrated in the name of freedom.
Those who argue that the flag amendment is a direct affront to First Amendment rights to free speech should check their dictionary. My Webster's defines speech as “the act of speaking; expression or communication of thoughts and feelings by spoken words.” It says nothing about the act of burning, mutilation, or trampling.
The liberty I was denied as a child should not be confused with the liberty some lawmakers want to give to those who would dishonor those who have died defending the American flag.
In Latin America, flag desecration is not only immoral, but downright repulsive. Those are just two of the adjectives used to describe singer Madonna when she rubbed herself inappropriately with the Puerto Rican flag in a concert in Puerto Rico two years ago.
Coming from a culture where the flag is a sacred symbol, from countries where there are severe penalties for flag desecration, most Latino-Americans are amazed that there is hesitation about banning such a hideous act — regardless of how many amendments it takes.
Yet, on Tuesday the Senate voted, 63-36, for an amendment giving Congress the power to prohibit physical desecration of the flag, three votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed for an amendment to the Constitution. Both New Jersey senators voted against it. Last June, the House had approved, 312-120, a broader amendment that gives both Congress and the states the power to determine what is unlawful flag desecration. The Senate version deleted the reference to the states in the House bill in a bid to overcome objections that states might enact conflicting laws.
But it was rejected nevertheless, sending flag-defenders back to the drawing board. They may have to settle for legislation barring flag desecration rather than changing the Constitution, which is the option favored by the White House.
Thoughts of my first American flag have been filed away for many years. But they come back with much passion when I hear cynics arguing that politicians are using flag desecration to divert attention from more important issues. I know, they do this quite often. But what is more important than the symbol of everything we stand for?
I don't know what happened to the first American flag I colored with crayons 35 years ago. When I left Cuba, it was tucked inside a book that stayed behind. But now I wish I still had it, so I could show it to those who take its symbolism for granted and fail to appreciate its radiant beauty.